Tears flowed from Japanese players and fans as the nation celebrated its inaugural triumph over a European rival in the FIBA Basketball World Cup on Sunday.
In a remarkable turn of events, the co-hosts Japan, staging the most significant comeback of the 2023 tournament to date, rallied from a staggering 18-point deficit to defeat Finland 98-88 in front of their fervent home crowd in Okinawa, effectively eliminating their Group E competitor.
Notable stars such as Yuta Watanabe from the Phoenix Suns and Yudai Baba of the NBA G League were visibly moved as the Japanese team etched their name in history, with numerous fans in the stands sharing the emotional experience.
Josh Hawkinson, a US-born player, delivered an impressive 28 points and 19 rebounds for Japan, while the local favorite Yuki Kawamura, standing at 5 feet 7 inches (1.72 meters), tallied an impressive 15 points in the fourth quarter alone, securing Japan’s first victory in the tournament.
This victory marked Japan’s first World Cup triumph in 17 years—its previous win took place when the country served as the host nation against Panama during the then-called FIBA Basketball World Championship in 2006. Japan had faced defeat in all five of its group matches during the postponed 2019 World Cup held in China.
Despite being a dominant basketball force in Asia, Japan has encountered challenges in making a global impact.
Tom Hovasse, Japan’s head coach, aspires for this “extraordinary game” against Finland, which ranks 24th globally, to propel the team, ranked 36th, onto the international tournament stage.
Hovasse shared his thoughts in a post-game press conference, stating, “This was a big win for us. We’re trying to create a new standard here for Japan and this was definitely a big step in the right direction,”
He continued, “The guys just never gave up. It was looking kinda bleak out there. We haven’t shot the ball well in the last three or four games. The fans were amazing.”
Keisei Tominaga, a promising US college prospect often likened to the “Japanese Stephen Curry,” contributed 17 points and commented, “Even when we were trailing by 18 points, we maintained our resolve. We were convinced we could turn it around. Our mutual trust played a significant role.”
Japan’s upcoming challenge involves a demanding final group match against the third-ranked team globally, Australia, on Tuesday. The victor is likely to advance to the second round. Germany, leading the group, has already secured their spot.
In the ongoing tournament, Japan and Australia are the sole representatives among the eight teams qualified from Asia and Oceania to secure victories.
China, which recently naturalized NBA player Kyle Anderson in a bid to enhance its World Cup prospects, experienced a heavy defeat to Serbia by 42 points in its opening game. Meanwhile, co-hosts the Philippines are grappling with the aftermath of two disappointing losses.
The 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup is co-hosted by the Philippines, Japan, and Indonesia, marking the first instance of multiple nations jointly hosting the event.
Indonesia’s participation marks its debut as a host, but it is noteworthy that this also signifies the first time in World Cup history that the hosts failed to qualify.
The FIBA World Cup will continue until September 10.